by Justice William W. Bedsworth
I’ve been doing this a long time. We’re nigh onto thirty-seven years now, and while I haven’t gotten noticeably better at it, I rarely face a blank page with dread anymore. I kinda figure I can knock out 1200 words without damaging my spleen or divulging classified information or anything. And, having acknowledged that we’re wasting space here, I think I’ve pretty much insulated the readership1 from disappointment.
But this one scares me. I have never before discussed the genitalia of a United States Supreme Court Justice, and trepidation—extreme trepidation—seems the right frame of mind in which to do so.
I’m driven to this desperate measure by two things: my deadline and a growing mania in our country for the “ephemeral immortality” conveyed by what have come to be known as “naming rights.”
We’re all familiar with the basic idea behind this phenomenon. It’s been around forever. I attended Roosevelt Elementary School, Mark Twain Elementary School, Bishop Montgomery High School, Loyola University, and Boalt Hall School of Law. All were obviously named to commemorate someone the naming authority considered worthy of immortality.2
I work across the street from a federal courthouse which is one of the 2,697 buildings3 named after Ronald Reagan. When a case leaves my court it sometimes wends its way into the totally unrelated Ronald Reagan courthouse in Los Angeles, where our Supreme Court sits. Attorneys sometimes fly in for argument from the Ronald Reagan airport, reassured, no doubt, by the fact that if the court literally eviscerates them, they can receive treatment at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
We’ve always done this. It’s as common as quarters. And at a time when we were better able to distinguish between heroes and villains, no one gave it a second thought.
It has, however, become problematic in this century.4 The Houston Astros ran into trouble when they sold their naming rights to Enron. Enron immediately imploded in one of the most catastrophic business collapses this side of The South Sea Bubble of 1720. It took the Astros until this year to recover.
And now that naming rights have devolved from iconic names to marketing strategies and fund-raising devices, their sale has continued to convolute. Victor Niederhoffer, in his book, Practical Speculation, makes a pretty good case that companies who buy naming rights are cursed. They almost always begin a downward slide immediately after that, and it gets worse and worse for about three years.
As Niederhoffer sees it, “Corporations are beset by the same harmful tendencies as investors. When they are at their peak, they reach for the sun.”
Well, I think we’re getting perilously close to the sun, and I think the Supreme Court genitalia issue I will discuss below5 plainly establishes that is no more a good idea for us than it was for Enron or Daedalus.
The problem is, there are a finite number of things to name.6 We’ve already begun cheating on this. My law school alma mater plays its basketball games on “Newell Court” at “Haas Pavilion.” The University of Maryland plays football at “Capital One Field at Byrd Stadium.” My personal favorite—because it is so ungainly—is Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium, where Judge Dunning’s son played when he was a Wisconsin Timber Rattler in the Midwest League.
The same twofer has been adopted by UCLA which plays on “Wooden Court” at “Pauley Pavilion.”7 Next we’ll have the Jabbar and Walton benches and the Starbucks and McDonald’s nets.
I can just hear the public address announcer of the future intoning, “That is the third team foul on the Holland-America Cruise Company/University of Washington Huskies; Moheliak shooting one plus one for the Blizzard Entertainment Group Bruins with the Valley Community Bank basketball at the Harley-Davidson Motor Company end of Wooden Court.”
Some years ago, I recommended in this space that we take advantage of this trend to renovate courthouses all over the state by selling naming rights to them. I envisioned attorneys carrying briefcases into the World Poker Tour Courthouse to argue their cases in PetSmart Department 12 and Walmart Department 14. I envisioned courts that operated in the black.
I got nowhere.
I complained—rather assiduously—about this shortsightedness until last year. That’s when I decided it was just too dangerous.
That’s when George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, announced that it was changing the name of its law school to honor the recently passed Antonin Scalia. It seems the school had received gifts of $30 million dollars from the Charles Koch Foundation and an anonymous donor, dependent upon it renaming the law school after the late justice.
So the George Mason School of Law became the Antonin Scalia School of Law.
For about a week.
That’s how long it took for the student furor about the possible acronyms (ASSoL and ASSLaw) to convince the Board of Visitors to go with Antonin Scalia Law School instead.
Having seen how easily circumstances proved Robert Bruce right in Virginia (“The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley”), I decided to back off my courthouse naming rights crusade. But not everyone has yet seen the wisdom of caution in appending names to things.
Which brings me, oddly enough, to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This is what it said in The Washington Post about Justice Ginsburg:
For the first time, scientists have used the genitals of female praying mantises to formally distinguish one species from another. And using this novel technique, they’ve identified a previously unknown creature: Ilomantis ginsburgae. The lovely new mantis is named in honor of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Go ahead. Go back and re-read that quote. Take your time. I’ll wait.
Yeah, I know. I was as gobstopped as you are. I took one look at it and thought, “column fodder,” but I felt like a puppy wolf getting his first look at a buffalo: My instincts tell me it’s prey, but there’s just so much, I can’t figure out where to begin.
Turns out the tradition in the scientific world is to allow the discoverer of a new species to name it. And despite what you may have heard about scientists, some of these people have great senses of humor. That’s why the scientific name for the saber-toothed tiger is Smilodon fatalis.8
Some biologists have been arguing for years that one good way of distinguishing between species is female genitalia. This is the first time they’ve been able to do it and have the name accepted, so they felt they should use the name of a leader in gender equality. And since Justice Ginsburg often wears a jabot9 and the “lovely new mantis”10 has a frilly neck plate,11 well, you can see how it was pretty much a scientific slam-dunk.
So Justice Ginsburg is the namesake of the first species ever identified through examination of its female genitalia. At least until it becomes the Chik-fil-A Ilomantis ginsburgae.
Okay, so let’s review. I wrote a column about two Supreme Court justices and somehow all you got out of it was saber-toothed tigers, praying mantises, Casey Stengel, and the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. Ten minutes you’ll never get back.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at email@example.com. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.